There are many things our six-year-old son Noah cares deeply about. Food, Luna Park, the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Slip n Slide, and his family are just five of his “best favourite” things.
One thing he couldn’t care less about is that Uncle Mark, my best friend and his beloved godfather, is gay. Noah doesn’t know the word ‘gay’ and he doesn’t need to. What he does know is that Uncle Mark loves Uncle David.
Noah sees Mark and David regularly, proudly exhibits his latest paintings on their fridge and goes to their home for Star Wars movie marathons and sleepovers. In January, Noah will bust his best dance moves at their wedding.
Noah wants to be near Mark and David and their love because they make him feel safe and special and part of a wider family. Noah knows his Mama and Dadda are married because they love each other above all others – and so it is with his uncles.
They love each other, too, and Noah knows it, sees it and, from his six-year-old perspective, ‘gets’ it. It’s as trivial to Noah that Mark has chosen David as it is that he prefers mint-chocolate-chip icecream to vanilla. He’s not yet mature enough to articulate it, but Noah understands that when you love someone, gender is irrelevant.
The inclusiveness Noah is absorbing goes to the very heart of the ways children can and should be taught about the manifold ways the world works, says Dr Lynne Hillier, Adjunct Associate Professor at La Trobe University’s Faculty of Health Sciences.
Teaching primary-school-aged kids about gay issues is not about sex, it’s about fair representation – and normalising same-sex relationships is important because the greater knowledge children have of the different ways in which people live and love, the better, Dr Hillier says.
Sex doesn’t even necessarily need to form a part of the conversation.
“When discussing homosexuality with younger children, it’s as appropriate to leave sex out of the equation as it is to leave sex out of a discussion about heterosexuality,” Dr Hillier says. “The same rules apply, whether talking about sex, love, families or relationships.”
As Dr Hillier concedes, many parents find talking with their offspring about any kind of sex difficult, but the best and most valuable learning about sexuality happens in the home.
“We need to remember that so much of this is not about sex – it’s about representing the world to your children the way it is and not perhaps the way it was represented to you, bleaching out all of those fears, misconceptions and stereotypes that make homosexuality a scary thing rather than a normal and natural thing,” she says.
Certainly, same-sex couples are becoming more comfortable about disclosing their relationships, and the recently released NATSEM report showed that in the past 10 years, the number of same-sex couples has increased 73 per cent to 33,714 households.
The majority of Australians also support equal rights for same-sex couples, according to the report by the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), a research centre within the University of Canberra. A strong growth in support among older Australians lifted the national level to 65 per cent approval rating for same-sex equality.
Studies have shown that when families talk frankly with children about sex and sexuality, it contributes to greater openness on this topic and, eventually, improved sexual health among young people.
Joel Radcliffe is a Project Officer for the Safe Schools Coalition Victoria (SSCV), a groundbreaking program in operation for the past three years which aims to make all schools safe and supportive places for same-sex-attracted, intersex and gender-diverse students, teachers and families.
Normalising same-sex relationships among primary-school-aged children was a way to stamp out the homophobia that, even today, remains rife in schools, Joel says.
According to the latest survey conducted by Dr Hillier’s team at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), 75 per cent of the 3,200 participants had experienced abuse or discrimination on the basis of their sexuality, the vast majority of it taking place at school.
“It’s amazing to see really young primary-school-aged kids take the lead with this stuff – they tend to deal with it a lot more swiftly than adolescents and teenagers,” Joel says.
“A lot of the stuff in the curriculum in Australia isn’t mandated to be taught until year 9/10 but if these subjects haven’t been raised in classrooms up until that point it can become very awkward and uncomfortable and difficult to broach.”
Joel says: “Our advice to parents is to keep it uncomplicated. Of course you can talk about love and relationships with your children, from as young an age as they can understand, and it’s really important to do that so that children are forming ideas and using language around relationships from the moment they can speak.”
As an example, Joel pointed to a colleague who has a powerful and age-appropriate activity that she does with primary-school-aged students.
“Using felt figures, she sits down with Kindy kids and talks about how, ever since the beginning of time, people have fallen in love and hearts have come together,” Joel says.
“She goes on to say that ever since the beginning of time some of those hearts have been girls’ hearts with boys’ hearts and some have been two boys’ hearts and some have been two girls’ hearts. She tells the kids that that’s the way it’s always been and that’s the way it will always be, forevermore. It’s a really nice, simple way to have a four- or five-year-old-friendly conversation about sexual diversity.”
Dr Hillier provides the following tips for parents wishing to discuss gay relationships with their primary-school-aged children:
1. Search your own beliefs and values. “You need to look at the teaching you have been given,” says Dr Hillier. “Look at what you have been told and then you need to question it, because so much of what you have been told is totally inaccurate and much of people’s fears are based on these unsubstantiated inaccuracies.”
2. Forget the fear. “Fear should have no place in this.”
3. Keep it equal. “Whatever you do with regard to discussing heterosexual relationships and families, you can and should do the same with gay relationships and families.”
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